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In Quest of Indian Folktales: Pandit Ram Gharib Chaube and William Crooke. By Sadhana Naithani. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. xi + 328 pp.

“In 1996, I located the handwritten manuscripts of William Crooke’s famed collection of the folktales of northern India in the archive of the Folklore Society, London” (vii). So begins the preface to Sadhana Naithani’s recent study and tale collection, In Quest of Indian Folktales: Pandit Ram Gharib Chaube and William Crooke. Forty years ago, and in a very different cultural moment, Richard Dorson opened his preface to the seminal folkloric study, The British Folklorists: A History (London: Routledge, 1968), in strikingly similar terms. “This book began a long time ago,” Dorson wrote, “in the summer of 1948, when on a casual visit to my sister who lived in London I stumbled across the library of The FolkLore Society” (v). Whether it is intentional or not, Naithani’s prefatory echo of her prestigious forerunner is revealing, both because it indicates the extent to which these two studies are working in the same tradition, and because it reminds us, simultaneously, how far folklore studies has traveled in the intervening years. On the one hand, this echo draws our attention to the fact that these two studies have similar objects in view: both are works of scholarly “detection” in which an archival discovery sparks a long and wide-ranging quest for information, both seek to contribute something new to our understanding of the history of folk-narrative collection, and both are, at least partially, works of literary biography that aim to reconstruct the lives of notable folklore scholars who had hitherto remained in the shadows. Even as these parallels became [End Page 326] apparent, however, it simultaneously becomes clear that both works, while pursuing similar objectives, do so with a very different cultural and political agenda. Dorson, writing at a time when folklore studies was struggling to be accepted as a serious academic subject, sought to justify it and embed it by celebrating the lives and works of its dominant progenitors. Naithani, by contrast, writing at a time in which folklore studies no longer needs to justify itself, and at a time in which the postcolonial imperative to plumb imperial archives for their gaps and exclusions has become institutionally embedded, wants to discover, not what the dominant discourses of British folklore were, but what alternative discourses they have silenced, marginalized, or obscured. Although both of these works may, therefore, be said to mark major contributions to the field of folktale scholarship, they do so from very different perspectives, for while Dorson’s is a work of scholarly constitution, Naithani’s is a work of scholarly reconstitution—and indeed, as it transpires, restitution.

The particular act of restitution that Naithani aims to effect in In Quest of Indian Folktales is of the reputation of the Indian scholar Ram Gharib Chaube, who assisted William Crooke in his collection of 158 tales from the NorthWestern provinces and Oudh between 1892 and 1896, and who has, subsequently, been all but erased from memory. Chaube, Naithani shows, gathered the bulk of the tales in Crooke’s manuscript collection, translated them into his own distinctive English, and mediated them for Crooke by identifying the narrators and by offering a series of insightful and explanatory marginal annotations. In return for this hard work, however, Crooke failed to “acknowledge Chaube in any of his published writings” (15), leaving Chaube’s role to be discovered by Naithani only because he signed the manuscript (perhaps anticipating his future obscurity) and, later, wrote a long letter to Crooke in which he reflected upon their past friendship and requested Crooke’s help in obtaining a job. As was the case with so many of the Indian intellectuals who helped British collectors, it appears, Chaube could only be seen by Crooke as a “native assistant,” not as a professional equal. Naithani’s more sensitive postcolonial reconstruction of Chaube’s contribution, however, allows us to see him in a different light, as a scholar in his own right who had a distinctive and important shaping role in the collection of Indian folklore.

Since it is Naithani’s...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-1802
Print ISSN
1521-4281
Pages
pp. 326-329
Launched on MUSE
2009-04-08
Open Access
No
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